With his foot on a front porch of a stately home in Charleston, S.C., a canvasser for a $100 million field effort supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) vented on July 7 about a homeowner who he said had told him to get off his lawn.
Speaking on his phone while wearing a T-shirt with “DESANTIS” in big letters and a lanyard representing the Never Back Down super PAC, he used lewd remarks to describe what he would tell the homeowner to do to him. “And I’m a little stoned, so I don’t even care,” he added, holding materials and appearing to wait for another homeowner to come to the door.
The outburst — seen on a Ring doorbell video recording that was shared with The Washington Post — led to the canvasser’s dismissal this week, according to an official from Never Back Down. It highlighted a potential risk of the unprecedented effort by DeSantis donors to flood early primary states with thousands of paid door knockers armed with high-tech tools to win support one conversation at a time.
Unlike traditional presidential field organizing — which is run by an official campaign and driven largely by volunteers — the Never Back Down effort is staffed with an army of paid workers, many of whom have responded to advertisements that offer positions for $20 to $22 an hour. Trained in Iowa during an eight-day class, some come out of the system with polished pitches, as true believers. Others are just there for a job.
“After learning of the incident, we investigated and terminated the individual,” said Kate Roberts, the national field director of Never Back Down, in a statement. “Our field program is having thousands and thousands of incredible conversations around the country every day. This individual’s behavior is counter to the standards taught in our training and is not tolerated.”
Paid canvassing is a method of voter contact that has proved effective in previous campaigns but requires significant supervision and can backfire if employees misbehave. There is no way to know how frequent the misfires are or whether they are detracting from the goals of DeSantis donors. In a few cases, residents at homes visited by canvassers, as sometimes happens with volunteer efforts, have reported being turned off by the dress of workers. Others have complained about door knockers from distant states coming to their neighborhood.
“They’re just hiring people who don’t even support the candidate. They don’t believe in the candidate,” said Barbara Comstock, a former Virginia Republican congresswoman, who has hired local paid field workers in her races. “Particularly when you’re in a competitive primary, you want someone who is local and knows the state and knows the politics of the state, knows the people, knows who is who. You want people who can speak credibly about a candidate.”
Never Back Down officials say the effort is already paying enormous returns for the pro-DeSantis effort. The super PAC — which collects unlimited donations and does not directly coordinate strategy with the candidate — now fields 350 to 400 canvassers, all of whom have been trained and are audited daily, said Kristin Davison, the chief operating officer of Never Back Down. They have already conducted 163,704 conversations at 713,732 doors, and gathered 7,246 “Commit to Caucus” cards for DeSantis in Iowa alone, she said Thursday.
“By the end of the month our canvassers will have knocked on more than 1 million doors,” Davison said in a statement. “Every day these canvassers have thousands of conversations, identifying supporters who we’ll later mobilize, as well as identifying undecided voters who get specific follow up based on the conversation at the door.”
Many of these conversations have undoubtedly passed without incident. Never Back Down provided The Washington Post with a lengthy list of quotes they said were from voters praising DeSantis when approached by Never Back Down door knockers.
“I can say one thing DeSantis has going for him over Trump is you coming out here and talking to me. We’ve never had anyone come to our door like this before,” reads one of the voter quotes provided by the group.
But some Trump supporters who talked to The Post say they disapproved of the interactions. This is true even in cases, as in one door-knock in Marion, Iowa, also recorded on a Ring doorbell camera, where the canvasser presented a professional and enthusiastic case for DeSantis.
“I thought it was off-putting that he was from out of state,” said Geralyn Jones, the Marion resident who supports Trump and spoke with the canvasser. “If you are going to be endorsing or knocking, you need to be from here. I didn’t understand why DeSantis of all people could not get other people on the ground.”
Mike Hogan, a Trump supporter in Nashua, N.H., said he found a Never Back Down door knocker on his front porch in late May, shortly after DeSantis announced his campaign. The young man, dressed in the organization’s apparel, had ripped hems on his jeans and what he called “skater shoes,” and did not even knock on his door, he said.
“He was just standing there, which was weird. I said, ‘Can I help you?’” Hogan said, before adding that the canvasser said something and walked away. “He was not saying anything. He was just texting. He would not look up.”
The location of people who work for Never Back Down is tracked through an app on their phone, which can record their engagement with homes. The workers are also required to enter notes of their interactions with voters in between homes.
“As incidents come up, they are addressed. Individuals are fired, disciplined or retrained,” Davison said. She said that people had traveled from other states because they are supporters of DeSantis but don’t live in early voting states. She said 1,348 locals in early states have volunteered to help the Never Back Down effort after being canvassed at their door.
All the employees who work for Never Back Down have been trained in an office park in West Des Moines, Iowa, which the group has nicknamed Fort Benning, in honor of an Army base previously named for a Confederate general in Georgia. They are coached not to speak to reporters, to move on from homes with die-hard Trump supporters, to respect “No Trespassing” signs and to pay little mind to “No Soliciting” signs.
Never Back Down organizers say that some people in every training class do not make it through the program because they do not meet the standards of the organization.
One former canvasser who went through the Iowa training said many classmates were primarily motivated by a paycheck. This person, who was later fired after being accused of not being in a the right location while working, spoke on the condition of anonymity because Never Back Down and its subcontractors “threatened to go after us if we talked to the media after we left the organization.” The person was not paid for all the time working for the organization, due to deductions for expenses for hotels and flights after the firing, the person said.
“They told us not to say that we are here for the money but we are here because we love Ron DeSantis,” said the person.
Those who attend the Never Back Down training in Iowa are employed and managed by subcontractors, including Vanguard Field Strategies, a company that is owned by Axiom, whose founder, Jeff Roe, is chief strategist for Never Back Down. Another subcontractor is Blitz Canvassing, which is a partner of a subsidiary of the GP3 Company, where longtime DeSantis adviser Phil Cox is a partner.
“The Never Back Down training was great in Iowa, and we learned a lot of helpful door-knocking tips,” this former canvasser said. They added that the subcontractors “did not manage the canvassers well.”
The frustrated door knocker caught on the doorbell camera in South Carolina had just clashed with Ralph Petrek in the gated community in Charleston, according to Petrek’s wife, Susan Scholten Petrek. She said her husband asked him to leave the neighborhood and pointed out there were “No Solicitation” signs posted.
“He became irate with my husband and said, ‘I can go wherever I want to go. I’ll go next door,’” she said. “My husband said, ‘You need to leave this neighborhood.’ He continued to argue with my husband, and my husband finally escorted him off our porch and said he had to leave. He then went over to my neighbor’s house and started saying very gross things. My neighbor was not happy at all.”
Her neighbor did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post.